The Ladakh files: September 2008
By: Sahba Rowshan
Location: Leh, Ladakh – INDIA
Also featured in Issue #6 | November 2011
In September 2008, two friends; Dhruv and Sahba(me) headed out to Manali and Ladakh to find some new trails, our main plan was to ride down the four main passes on the Manali – Leh highway, which also happen to be some of the highest in the world, sounds simple right? This is a brief account of our rides.
Our first stop was a small village called Jibhi, nestled below the famous Jalori pass. Our aim was to get to the top of Jalori pass, which is over 3100 meters, and ride back down to Jibhi, which is approximately 2000 meters high. The elevation drop was over 1000 meters! Unfortunately, our jeep had other plans, as the road turned from tarmac to rock garden and the incline increased dramatically on the way to the pass, the jeep decided to start leaking coolant before we got anywhere near the pass and we had to return.
After speaking to some locals, we decided to go to another village, it wasn’t as high as the pass, but with the promise of lush single-track winding through alpine forests, it was the next best thing. We stopped for some chai and Maggi at a local shop at the drop off point. With our big bikes, Darth Vader type helmets and strange padding, the local kids as usual, were an intrigued bunch.
The trail started off with a long and windy piece of single track that was uphill at times. The beauty was inescapable, after spending one year away from the mountains, we definitely felt at home. As we continued on the trail, we came to a small village, at this stage, to be honest, we were lost. But figuring we were on the right side of the mountain, we decided going down was the best idea. And so we went down, through winding single track, through corn fields, cobbled village paths and stairs till the sun set. By the time it was dark, it began to rain, while Dhruv decided to get back to the road, being the stubborn person I was, I decided to keep riding down the trail to see where it went.
This was probably a bad choice, given I had almost $1500 of camera gear and no water proof bag, the trail however, just got better as I went ahead. There were long, steep and flowy sections of single track caressing the side of the mountain, breaking intermittently through the occasional step farm followed flights of rocky stairs that were spaced perfectly far enough for me to roll over. As all good things come to an end though, the trail did end, and I was reminded by the darkness and the rain, that I was indeed lost. I eventually managed to carry my bike through some bush and hike back to the road, which led me back to the hotel.
Our second ride took us to Manali and up to the Rohtang Pass, which, at 3978 meters, is the gateway to the Lahaul and Spiti valleys and the first pass on the way to Leh, and also the first trail on our main plan. The idea was simple, since there were no forests on the mountain, we would ride straight down the face of the mountain. Easier said than done!
We started on a ridiculously exposed trail with a vertical drop of at-least a 100 meters. Dhruv volunteered to go first, so you my dear readers can see what it looked like. Riding down a bare mountain face in the Himalayas is relatively straightforward; you need to hold your line, avoid getting impaled by the gargantuan rocks and most importantly; try not to ride off a cliff to your death. All of which, we somehow managed to do. As we got to the bottom in one piece, we were greeted by our trusty friend Curren with the Jeep, some hot tea and dinner. All was well!
Our next destination would be by far the highest, and the most spectacular. Tso Morriri lake, at 4595 meters, with its crystal clear blue waters and snow-capped surrounding mountains is perhaps, the closest we could get to heaven with our hearts still beating in our chest. And now we were going to ride there!
“Air density decreases as altitude increases”: Like most remote riding destinations, we had to earn the ride in Tso Morriri, but pushing your bike above 4600 meters, every step becomes arduous. We pushed for over an hour only to gain a few hundred meters of elevation. But on this day, that was high enough, when we got up we were greeted by a post card view, the wind had stopped, and the surrounding mountains were reflected, perfectly still in the lake.
After shooting some panoramas, we headed straight down, this was a bomber run! Pinned down and hanging on for life, even with my full suspension setup, I gathered so much speed that the vibrations from my suspension actually blurred my vision near the end of the run! With one more mountain to climb though, we had no time to rest, and not long after, we were again up above the village.
The second climb took us till just before sunset, with the sun almost fading, the sky turned into a kaleidoscope of colours, each being reflected perfectly in the lake. With the sky lit and the clouds glowing in sunset’s gold, we descended again; It was a short trail, carving its path on the right side of the mountain and then leading to a few twisty switchbacks before arriving at the top of the monastery stair case, Dhruv went left to find a path to the village, and I decided to ride down the wall beside the stair case, which had a small drop at the end. I caught up to Dhruv and by then we were absolutely exhausted, with sore aching muscles, but big smiles around.
There is only one thing more entertaining than riding down the side of a monastery, and that is letting a dozen children monks play around with your bike, there is an almost universal fascination amongst children when they see a purpose built mountain bike!
Our last ride, took us to the village of Shey, here, we were just scoping the terrain for some lines, trying to find natural drops in the lunar landscape! We spent some time hitting small drops and riding lines with multiple hits. And then, it the distance, a small cliff caught my eye, the closer I got to it, to more rideable it looked. I told myself, “you wouldn’t do that, it’s too risky” and kept looking for other lines, but the voice in my head wouldn’t go away. The more I looked at it, the more plausible it became. The run in was very sketchy, I had to ride between two stupas to get to the drop, but the landing was steep, and clean. After a bit of banter between the logical me and the rider in my head, I decided to hit it.
Now normally, you would take a few run-ups to a drop you haven’t hit before, especially when you haven’t ridden for a year. So I walked over the run in, and scoped out the landing, and then decided to do a run up.
The first run up; you twist your grips, you try and get your pedal in that perfect position, take deep breaths, you tell yourself you can make it, you tell yourself it’s just a run up. I looked to my right and saw Dhruv in the distance, ready for the shot. With static running through my gloves, I grabbed the bars and pedalled towards the lip, and then it hit me, I had to it, now. There wasn’t going to be a run up.
It takes less than a few seconds from when you take off, and when you feel your body compressing into a landing. But every time you hit something for the first time, your mind automatically processes everything in slow motion. It’s like those HD shots from the bike movies, time slows down, you hear nothing but the sound of your spokes spinning, until you land, and then everything starts running in real time, in full volume. With that drop done, we wrapped it up. In retrospective; it wasn’t one of those 30 foot bangers you see pro’s hitting like it’s no one’s business, but it made me push myself, and that’s what mattered.
All in all, we didn’t get to ride all the passes, but we did find some unexpected gems such as the Jibhi trail, the drop lines in Shey and post card views in Tso Morriri. Until next time… there is so much more to explore friends! So keep pushing and keep riding. Juley!